Dialect has been on my mind more than usual lately. There are a few reasons for that.
First. There’s a national hui coming up for language experts to discuss how to support dialect.
Second. People keep telling me about the recently published book, He Kupu Tuku Iho, by Timoti Karetu and the late Wharehuia Milroy, where they predict that the only dialect that might survive into the future is the Ngāpuhi dialect, because nobody has managed to kill it off so far. Ha ha, I knew there was a reason my old people always referred to themselves as tūmatakuru.
Third. Māori Language Week. Everywhere you looked this year, there were stories about how such-and-such a group were “hungry for te reo Māori”. Anecdotally, the positive response has been huge. By anyone’s standards, that’s a success. But I think there are some unintended negative consequences of that for dialect.
It goes without saying that the language will need a critical mass to survive into the future. But that critical mass is being built around a standardised language. As more focus is placed on a standardised language, and as that group grows, dialect will get squeezed even further.
Yes, the pros and cons of a standardised language vs dialect have been around for decades. The difference is that, in the past, they were both at death’s door. Now, there’s a flicker of life in the standardised reo, which makes dialect look sicker than ever.
The fourth reason for dialect being on my mind has been the catalyst for penning these thoughts. It’s the news about a new te reo Māori translation project called Kotahi Rau Pukapuka. The aim is one hundred books over five years, translated into te reo Māori.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is up first. Amazing. All my kids have been through the Harry Potter phase. One of my girls is in it at the moment. (My “sorting hat” put her in Gryffindor. Sadly, she can sort herself, and says she belongs in Ravenclaw.)
To get te reo Māori access to a property like this — outsold only by Te Paipera Tapu (the Bible) — is incredible.
But there’s a fly in the potion. If the best resources on offer for our children aren’t in our dialect, then how the heck does dialect survive? Part of the purported Māori name for the Harry Potter title is “Whatu Manapou”. I assume that means “philosopher’s stone”. Sorry, don’t know those words.
To be clear, I’m not a Luddite. I’m totally down with new words, new whatevers. I just happen to believe that we can modernise the language and still retain some dialectal shape and authenticity to it.
I’ve said publicly, many times, that after I’ve exhausted all my own personal language resources — my memory, followed by kaumātua still living, followed by a big stash of manuscripts, and so on — I’m more than happy to take whatever word has been invented. But even if we adopt those new words, we can still have our own flavour.
I’ll make an assumption based on a best-case scenario — 50 percent of those books will be translated by somebody from my iwi. Big assumption, for sure. That means the other 50 percent won’t be much use to Ngāpuhi, in my opinion. That’s a wasted opportunity.
I have no knowledge of any negotiations, past or ongoing, to secure the rights to translate these hot properties. But I sincerely hope that part of those rights includes the right to translate into dialects. I don’t think that’s difficult to negotiate. International and local publishers want to be seen on the right side of supporting endeavours to revive indigenous languages.
Because, if organisations that have the clout to make these deals happen haven’t included the simple explanation that te reo Māori includes myriad dialects as part of the legal definition of the language in any contracts, then aren’t we just talking about Muggles* and losing the wondrous magic that makes Hogwarts special?
So that’s the easy part.
Funding groups like Te Mātāwai may argue that it would cost too much to produce versions in lots of different dialects. That’s true. It should be the responsibility, in large part, of our various iwi to fund those translations.
The deal-makers should help get us the rights, under a broad definition of “te reo Māori” as explained above. At least that gives us the option. Then it’s up to Ngāpuhi to make the rest happen.
This will require some potent spells!
As we’ve been preoccupied with Treaty claims, it’s easy to forget that the many lost opportunities also include our reo. In the absence of post-Treaty settlement infrastructure, it’s going to take a master class in The Defence of the Dark Arts to get some collaboration across MOE, rūnanga, kura, Te Mātāwai and the rest, to make the most of any rights that are negotiated on our behalf.
So here’s a road map to get to Hogwarts.
Step 1. Share the rights.
Step 2. Take Professor McGonagall’s transfiguration course to turn the above-mentioned entities into a unified force that transforms those 100 books into our dialect.
As a final, melancholic thought, there’s a question that still remains about whether we might be doing our tamariki a disservice by prioritising dialect in a future that may have greater rewards for those with a standardised language.
But, wherever I go on my travels, I don’t meet many whānau from Ngāpuhi who want that future for our language. We’re the biggest tribe by a Muggle mile. We should be able to retain it.
*A Muggle in the Harry Potter world is someone with no magic blood.
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